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'High road' workforce study looks at declining earnings in Kern


Daisy Cruz packages freshly picked grapes for table grape grower Richard Deckard in this September 2021 file photo.

A new study out of UC Merced challenges Kern's "open for business" approach to economic development with data suggesting workers in the county have suffered some of the state's steepest income drops at a time of fast population growth.

The report released in May said that after growing at a blazing 35 percent between 2000 and 2009, Kern's per-capita economic output actually shrank by 4.4 percent during the 10 years that followed.

Titled "The Future of the State: Kern County's Young, Growing, Diverse Population and Dynamic Economy," the study also found that local workers' median earnings, as measured in 2019 dollars, fell 13 percent between 1979 and 2019 to hit $30,000 per year.

The report is part of the Kern High Road Coalition, which is aimed at combining industry leadership and worker focus with climate action. It made the point that the county's economic expansion has largely been fueled by population growth and declining wages paid to workers.

"In this context, any proclamations of favorable conditions for local business owners obscure enormous workers disadvantage that must be addressed for equitable economic development to occur," the report concluded after opening with the stated goal of examining what Kern's reputation of being "open for business" means for workers in the county.

The study is expected to help guide the coalition's efforts to increase equity. The coalition is led by Bakersfield College; the Center for Race, Poverty, & the Environment; the Kern Community College District and UC Merced's Community and Labor Center.

President Imelda Ceja-Butkiewicz of the Kern-Inyo-Mono Central Labor Council said in a news release the report amounted to a call to action.

"Future of the State uses data to tell an important story, that Kern County has not shared enough of its prosperity with its workers," Ceja-Butkiewicz stated.

Executive Director J.P. Lake of Kern's B3K Prosperity economic collaboration said by email he views the study as "further confirmation of the need for more quality jobs in Kern County, and the unique position our community is in relative to the rest of the state."

The county's population increased 41 percent between 2000 and 2019 — the third fastest among California counties — and that its workforce also ranked third with a growth rate of 51 percent, according to the report.

Forty percent of workers in the county earn less than a living wage, a condition defined as having a job that offers consistent and severe housing and food insecurity, the report stated. It said almost half of all workers in southeast Bakersfield make less than a living wage.

It found that Kern job growth between 2009 and 2019 was led by warehousing; animal production; the job category defined as mining, forestry, fishing and hunting; building services; and utilities.

Cal State Bakersfield economist Richard Gearhart said by email population growth itself lowered per-capita output between 2009 and 2019. He said the situation highlights the challenges faced by an economy where almost a quarter of all productivity comes from oil and agriculture.

He noted that per-capita economic output may not be the best gauge to use because young and growing populations tend to earn low initial wages in general, and that blue-collar jobs such as those prevalent in Kern tend to offer low wages.

Gearhart also pointed to data from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis showing Kern's median income increased about 31 percent between 2010 and 2020 to reach $59,000.

He also took issue with the focus on worker wages instead of household earnings, which can better reflect how families divide their time among activities such as work, leisure and child care.